Graham strongly feels that the focus that Arizona State has already displayed in spades in its first two games of the 2012 season is key to the Sun Devils’ chances of remaining undefeated following this weekend.
“Sometimes when you are at home there is the extra emotion that comes along with that and you feed off of the crowd,” Graham explained. “When you go on the road you have to go in there and you have to have a different level of focus and concentration. It doesn’t really matter to me what we have done in the past one way or another, other than we want to honor the great things that we have done, but this is 2012 and I challenged our guys.
“You want to be a championship caliber team you have to go on the road and you have to win. I can tell you that it is the hardest thing to do in college football. I have always believed that. We work very, very hard at trying to capture their focus and preparing. I think it is mental more than it is anything else.”
Much like the scene from the iconic basketball movie ‘Hoosiers’, when any of Todd Graham’s teams show up for the walk through at the opponent’s stadium a day before the game, they assure themselves that despite all the foreign elements around them the gridiron itself is the same.
“I don’t want the first time there to be when we are running out for the kick-off,” Graham said. “We go in the stadium we walk, make sure we measure it is 53 and a third yard wide, it’s a 100 yards long, the end zone is 120 whatever, we make sure all of the goal posts are the right height and stuff and tell them it is the same field.”
The efforts of familiarity spill over to the visitors’ locker room as well.
“We take all of the signs that are in our locker room and actually have them made and carry them with us,” Graham stated. “We have plug-in air fresheners and we use the same air fresheners to try to make things as normal as they can possibly be. I don’t change anything. Everything is at exactly the same time. We try to keep things like that. As much as you can keep them in the routine the better it is.”
Missouri, who is currently on a school record 17 non-conference home win streak, is seeking to avenge a heartbreaking 37-30 overtime loss in Tempe last season, a contest in which the Tigers missed a last second field goal to win the contest.
Last Saturday Missouri played in its first ever SEC game, but their debut in that league was anything but memorable. In front of a sellout crowd at their home filed, the Tigers who held a late third quarter edge of 20-17 saw Georgia score 24 unanswered points and capitalize on two fourth quarter turnovers to come away with a 41-20 win.
Graham doesn’t think that the score of last week’s contest truly reflects the caliber of team Missouri actually is. The Tigers are led by quarterback James Franklin, who according to the ASU coach poses various problems for opposing defenses.
“The Tigers are very good, a very, very good football team,” Graham said. “I haven’t seen a lot of people stop them. What happened to them last week is they turned the football over. They had some real critical fumbles and all of them on Georgia’s end. [James] Franklin’s the most dynamic player by far that we have played against, a tremendous command of what he is doing. You can tell he really understands the system and knows it well. They are very, very explosive. They remind me a lot of how explosive Oregon is when you watch Oregon on film. Really, last week the score wasn’t any indication of the game.
“Defensively, they are very athletic and play extremely hard; hard-nose tough defense. Very, very well coached. I know coach (Defensive Coordinator Dave) Steckel on defense. [I am] very, very familiar with their staff. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for Coach and he has done a tremendous job. Each week it has gotten tougher for us obviously and I think this is going to be the biggest challenge yet. We cannot turn the football over in this game. We have to win the turnover battle and, again, continue to play disciplined football."
Graham had no problem confessing to the fact that he and his staff have certainly spent a lot of time trying to strategize on how to stop Franklin who is the proverbial dual threat signal caller.
“He has really got command of what he’s doing,” Graham described. “They have a great scheme and a great system. I think they ran 143 or 147 snaps and almost half of them were no-back. That’s interesting. They ran the ball sixty-something times and threw it 73. We have been going through that stuff and looking at it. It is really a challenge.
“You have to impact the quarterback. It’s going to be about match-ups up front and being able to do things to be disruptive. There are a lot of factors that go into that. Varying what we are doing, but we need to put pressure on him. It starts up front. The first two games we have played in we have dominated the line of scrimmage. We have to do that in this game. He is a very experienced guy. I watched 2011 games and he is a seasoned veteran. He knows what he is doing. He is very relaxed. I think the main thing that is impressive about him is how relaxed he is in the pocket. He is really relaxed in the pocket and knows that he doesn’t panic when he gets pressure. He is very smooth, gets away from it and gets the ball out. He is very quick. He is going to be a challenge.”
True freshman linebacker, Carlos Mendoza, was one of the defensive standouts against Illinois collecting two of the three ASU interceptions. However the game ended on a much different note than it started for Mendoza, who suffered a shoulder injury and was ruled out by Graham for this week’s game.
On the other hand, senior linebacker Brandon Magee will return to the lineup after missing ASU’s last game with a concussion.
Graham has gone on record several times expressing his concerns over the depth at secondary. Therefore, the ASU Head Coach announced in his weekly press conference that seldom used running back Deantre Lewis will get some looks on defense this week in practice.
“I think Deantre can still do the things he is doing on the offense,” Graham said. “We have a whole arsenal of guys there. Deantre is a team guy and came to me and said if you need me to help you, I’ll help you, so we are going to look and try and see if he can help us there, if not in-depth than in a certain package or a way like that. We just try to look and see how much someone is playing and how much they are being utilized.
“I’ll be honest with you (Offensive Coordinator) Coach Norvell is not for it. But we have to do what is best for the team, especially long range. Where we will probably look at him is a ‘Spur/Bandit’ type deal, specifically in our dime package, our third downs. I think we could put him in at third down and tell him to rush the quarterback and he’d be able to do that and do it pretty well. So we will see. We might look at it and nothing come of it but Deantre was more than willing, as a team guy, saying that whatever he can do to help the team he will. He is a phenomenal athlete and a very physical guy doing a great job. The reps he is getting on offense are limited because of all the guys we have there but he is still going to be able to do all those things as well.”
Scoring 108 points through its first two games of the season, a school record, is just one of many gaudy numbers the ASU offense has put up the last two weeks. However, this group isn’t without its blemishes, namely its two red zone lost fumbles versus Illinois.
What has been even more surprising that in this young season senior running back Cameron Marshall has muffed the pigskin on two occasions.
“The turnover in this last game was actually because (quarterback) Taylor (Kelly) was trying to pull the ball out in a read zone and really down there inside the five there doesn’t need to be much read to it,” Graham said. “So really it is just a coaching deal there. He [Taylor] was trying to pull it and he got past the point where he should be doing that and Cameron had thought he had pulled it, when it was on his hip as he was running through the line of scrimmage.
“For week one I think it was because he hadn’t practice that much. It was just a play he hadn’t run very much and it was a pitch and just dropped the ball. I have all the confidence in the world for him taking care of the football and it is something we are working hard to make sure doesn’t happen. That is the biggest concern right now, we have done a very good job on the penalty deal and we need to come out to these games and make sure we are securing the football. We do not want to be careless with the football and we have some of that.”
On the other hand, Graham was full of praise for the offensive line, a group that he called back in spring practice as the biggest surprise on the team.
“Kody Kobensky really played his best game,” Graham said. “Jamil (Douglas) played his best game. Obviously Fink (Evan Finkenberg) and (Brice) Schwab and (Andrew) Sampson play well every week. I thought our offense line played well. I thought they did a good job at protecting the quarterback. We held the ball to one sack, because we held the ball.”
While the 2012 Sun Devils wouldn’t necessarily be considered a very experienced squad, Graham noted that the team is showing some traits that would dispute that fact.
“I like how our guys are starting to coach themselves,” Graham said. “I like how they are coming off and they are talking. I tell them to talk to me and I think communicating in that way is something we have to get better at, because a quarterback they can really tell a lot; he’s standing right there.
“There was a coverage (situation) and I asked why he did not execute with this technique and I could tell by the look on his face that it was something he was uncomfortable with and I said, ‘Look if the game is on the line I don’t want you playing a technique you are uncomfortable running, so let me know those things. What are the techniques you like?’ Like when we press up against the corner there are several different ways we can do that and each person has strengths and weaknesses in that. We are starting to learn how to get those things because there are a lot of moving parts there.”